By Nicole Leonard
The neon lights above Bowling Green’s Capitol theater used to signify that a social event for the community and its guests lied just beyond the double doors of the building. Recently, though, those glowing letters gleam on a venue trying to establish a new name for itself.
Following its acquisition by the larger performing arts organization in Bowling Green, Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center (SKyPAC), the Capitol Theater was revamped and is now used to host intimate performances, screen movies and provide a rental space for community events. The theater is currently exhibiting a film program as well as a music series.
“SKyPAC is doing a good job using the Capitol for what it’s appropriate for, like the Lost River Sessions,” said Gerri Combs, first executive director for the Capitol, referring to musical performances organized by the local NPR affiliate. “Those are very successful, and they just picked up the South Arts Film Series, too.”
Fountain Square Park’s Capitol theater was established in the 1890s as a vaudeville house and was later redesigned as a movie theater in the 1930s, according to SKyPAC’s website. After almost 40 years, it was shut down and sat empty for a decade.
Change came when a local group called the Bowling Green-Warren County Arts Commission raised money to renovate and restore the building to be used as a venue for the arts and as a meeting place for the community. The combined efforts of donors throughout the region who raised $900,000 and contributions from city government allowed the theater to begin the next chapter in its decades-long history.
In 1981, the Capitol Arts Center opened its doors with a performance of “Broadway Tonight” to kick off its grand opening celebration.
The community arts center came to Bowling Green at a time when its downtown was struggling, said Combs.
The new design maintained an art-deco theme in order to preserve the charm and memory of the original 1930s construction, said Combs. The historical foundation of the building is evidenced by architectural elements like arrows indicating colored and white entrances which have remained intact and on display.
The Capitol accommodated touring Broadway shows and film series, held annual community galas and supplied a stage for local theater groups. Visual artists exhibited their works in the theater’s gallery, which kept a rotation of pieces for daily viewings.
“It became part of the social fabric of the community,” said Combs.
The growing prominence of Western Kentucky University’s Van Meter theater provided what Combs considered a healthy bridge from the town to the college campus through a shared vision for the arts, said Combs.
“It did a lot to bring theater off the hill,” said Combs. “It showed the community that they could participate and be a part of a cultural scene that was community-based as well as Western-based.”
Competition for production, compounded by the limited means of accommodation as a result of the Capitol’s size, created increasing issues for Capitol staff. Poor funding and outdated equipment necessitated personal donations from employees like Jeffrey Smith, former technical director, who put up his own money to furnish the building with modern technology.
Because the arts center was regarded as an integral part of the Bowling Green community, people had to show a willingness to attend the shows and other events held there to keep its doors open, said Combs.
Failed attempts to redesign the building to entertain larger audiences and decreasing amounts of donations left the future of the Capitol in question.
“Once you start losing relevance, people move on,” said Smith. “It was a flower, and like a flower it went away.”
The Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center was formed in 2000. After 30 years running the Capitol Theater, the Capitol Arts Alliance sold its venue to SKyPAC.
Former Executive Director Karen Hume believes that the Capitol represents something remarkable because of its historical ability to transform along with the demands of the town, said Hume. SKYPAC’s acquisition of the Capitol marked another turning point in the role of the theater following an economic struggle and a downturn in profitability.
SKYPAC would have been a competitor to the Capitol because of its ability to accommodate larger touring shows that attract more viewers.
“I think it had always been the dream of some people to have a bigger theater,” said Combs, who now works with SKYPAC.
Hume teared up as she recalled a time when SKYPAC appeared to discredit the relevancy of the Capitol in today’s community. The transition from an independent company to a satellite of a larger performing arts venue was mishandled, said Hume. She believes it is wrong to disregard that the heart of the city lies partially within the structure and memory of the Capitol, and she hopes that new efforts to revive it will succeed, said Hume.
“When that marquee was lit up, it lit up the square,” said Hume.
The Capitol will continue to have a place in Bowling Green’s local arts if it capitalizes on the charm of intimate performances and the need for a visual arts space downtown, Smith said. The emotional appeal of the Capitol separates it from the “corporate feel” of SKYPAC, Smith said.
There is still a place for the Capitol in Bowling Green if SKYPAC can usher in the next chapter of its history, said Smith and Hume.
“Running an arts organization is a beast that can eat you alive, but it is also rewarding,” said Hume. “That’s what I found at the Capitol.”